I didn’t attend my ten-year high school reunion. In fact, I’m not sure I know very many people who attended theirs, either. So when Welcome Back, Woodchucks, from What Went Wrong creators Shinbone Theatre, advertised an immersive experience based around the faux West Hollywood High’s reunion, I’ll admit I was skeptical, but intrigued. After all, the secret appeal of any reunion is to quietly observe which of your former classmates has become a total train wreck, and I had a giddy feeling that Woodchucks was about to give me plenty to write home about.
The most important thing to understand before going to Welcome Back, Woodchucks is that the show is advertised as an “audience-driven experience,” meaning that you, as the audience member, will be responsible for the course your evening takes. If you see a character that appeals to you, it’s up to you to greet them, remind them what classes you took at West Hollywood High together, and follow them to see their individual storyline. Given this, the experience is not going to appeal to all manner of immersive theater patrons. Those who prefer an “on rails” narrative will be disappointed with the lack of direction between actor and guest, while LARP fans and those keen to improv and push their own agency will be delighted at the opportunity.
This structure – wherein guests are assigned an identity that they must maintain while also attempting to onboard themselves to a narrative – both benefits and harms the production. The idea that a guest can do and say nearly anything is a coveted goal for immersive theater experiences. However, for Woodchucks, it sometimes blurs the purpose of a given scene. Since we aren’t passive observers, for example, eavesdropping on private conversations between characters feels somehow wrong, unnatural even. On occasion, it’s unclear whether you are speaking to an actor or a fellow guest – the show teeters between immersive and live-action role play to such an extreme degree that one’s role can become muddled.
That said, the action – both with the full cast in the main room and in smaller scenes scattered throughout the space and beyond – appears tightly timed and well-organized. Scenes spider out from the dance floor – drugs being palmed around in a corner, characters shouting at street vendors outside, emotional breakdowns in the restrooms – and then coil themselves back in for major story points. The smoothness of these transitions speaks to excellent direction from creators Leland Frankel and Jonny Perl, as well as immersive design from Sara Beil of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
From a narrative perspective, there isn’t a lot of meat to the plot. It’s a reunion, the characters we encounter are a mess, and hilarity tends to ensue; it’s relatively straightforward. This simplicity works in the production’s favor, however, particularly when coupled with the audience-driven nature of the experience. Those looking for a deep narrative thread within Woodchucks will be let down, but it’s a party, and a notably fun one at that. As such, the spaces left in the plot allow for plenty of improv from the actors, which in turn benefits the comedic lean of the show.
And the show is funny, quite enjoyably so at many points. Alex Leff and Jon Pedigo (both from Bar of Dreams) as Mike and Ike, respectively, perfectly embody the kind of guy who never really leaves high school behind: two playful troublemakers who spend the party teasing guests and reliving long-ago pranks. Meanwhile, Harrison Meloeny (Creep LA: Awake, Cuckoo’s Nest), as reunion organizer Tracey, undergoes such an elegant descent into madness it’s as if we’re watching him take a swan dive into an empty pool…in slow-motion. What gifts the show presents to its audience are largely due to the improvisational and performance strength of the cast.
Welcome Back, Woodchucks is the kind of show that will appeal greatly to first-time immersive theater attendees. It’s a reasonably low-pressure production that won’t force a guest beyond their comfort zone. It also has a lot of potential: a strong cast, good direction, and an easy-to-follow framework. The main weakness in the show may be in its audience-driven nature, although it is a major selling point for some; the onus is placed on the guest to create their own experience, yet the trails that lead to different narrative paths are sometimes difficult to discern. That said, there is a large space in Immersive Theater for comedy productions, and Woodchucks certainly fits the bill. It also fits the bill for the kind of train-wreck theater that high school reunions tend to promise, and as with train wrecks, you just can’t look away.